Uncertain livelihood

Updated Jan 31, 2017 01:48pm

‘The Afghans leaving will affect my business’

Sirajuddin and Tooba Masood

Meet Muhammad Azeem.

When he moved to a refugee camp in Peshawar, the skilled carpet maker started weaving carpets from his tent to support his extended family, which had accompanied him to Pakistan.

At this stage, he could never imagine that he would one day run a factory, and become the largest producer of Afghan carpets in Peshawar.

Initially, he would sell the carpets at very low rates. While working on carpets, he also continued building ties with salesmen, exporters, and traders in Peshawar and other cities.

After years of resolute efforts and sleepless nights, he managed to get enough of a financial standing to rent a small house in Peshawar’s Faqirabad area. His family finally moved out of the relief camp, ready to start a new chapter of their lives.

An Afghan vendor selling sweets at a roadside stall in Peshawar. — Malik Achakzai
An Afghan vendor selling sweets at a roadside stall in Peshawar. — Malik Achakzai

Of the many stereotypes that exist about Afghan refugees and migrants in Pakistan, one of the strongest is that they are a burden on the economy. This assumption fails to take into account the fact that Afghans have for years been assimilated in Pakistan and contribute to various industries including food, transport, and, of course, the carpet industry.

Today, Azeem’s carpets are best known for their artistry, colour palette and design — ‘both locally and internationally,’ he alleges.

At the time, demand for handwoven Afghan carpets was high, he says. “There were no factories in the city. This gave us an advantage, we worked day night; engaging more skilled workers to meet the demand.”

With time Azeem was able to employ more workers — creating about 80 jobs — and rent a building on Charsadda road to use as a factory.

Pakistan gave Azeem the opportunity of making it on his own based on sheer hard work, and he took it with stride.

And then the Army Public School attack happened.

“Production has decreased by 95 per cent; we have stopped further purchasing rugs and other material. We are nearly ready to close the factory.”

The police started raids and crackdowns against Afghans, forcing many to return to Afghanistan to avoid police harassment and arrest.

As Azeem’s buyers, and workers, started to leave Pakistan, he found himself back to square one.

More than 30 of his factory’s Afghan skilled workers have left the country.

“Production has decreased by 95 per cent; we have stopped further purchasing rugs and other material. We are nearly ready to close the factory,” a disappointed Azeem says.

Dozens of other Afghan carpet producers have closed shop.

Photo courtesy AFP
Photo courtesy AFP

The carpet market is not doing much better in Karachi.

Towards the heart of the daunting maze that is Al-Asif Square, is a street known to every man, woman and child in the area — ‘Carpet Wali Gali’. The gali’s colloquial name was supposedly given to it due to the Afghan traders that had set up shop in the vicinity.

With a residential block of apartments on the left, the right side is lined with shopkeepers and carpets from all over the world.

In one of the shops, sits Baba Nazar, a second-generation Afghan immigrant who was born in Karachi. The 22-year-old says that his ties to the land his father was born in are still strong.

His father, an Afghan who moved here in the late 1970s in hopes of settling down, had started their carpet business — making, buying and selling all sorts of carpets, daris and dastarkhwans. He still runs the small shop in Al-Asif.

An Afghan eatery in Peshawar. — Malik Achakzai
An Afghan eatery in Peshawar. — Malik Achakzai

“He moved to Karachi before I was born...before even my eldest brother was born. He has spent at least 35 years in this city alone,” Nazar tells Dawn.

According to the young man, along with locally handcrafted carpets, they also sell carpets and rugs made in Iran, Turkey and Belgium.

He shows us the most expensive item in their shop: a deep red carpet from Turkey, the price can fluctuate from Rs45,000 to Rs55,000 depending on the buyer (and their bargaining skills). The shop also has several cloth and jute dastarkhawans on sale ranging from Rs1,500 to Rs3,000.

“Our business depends on the residents of this area and the Afghan community.”

He adds that Iranian carpets were another category altogether — “I have Iranian carpets starting from Rs12,000 to Rs22,000; there are different rates for different patterns, thread and type of work.”

Like Azeem, Nazar too enjoyed good business until recently.

“Most of my own customers are from Karachi,” Nazar says. “I get a lot of people from Orangi, Banaras and many other far off places,” he adds.

On an average, the shop did good business, he tells Dawn. “We would make around Rs30,000 to Rs35,000 in one day if we had a good buyer. It always depends on the number of buyers,” he says.

“With the government asking the Afghans to leave I believe that it will affect my business,” he says, pausing to reconsider, “…actually I feel that it already has”.

“I cannot say what is happening in other markets but just buying and selling carpets in our own market, our business depends on the residents of this area and the Afghan community,” he says.

“If you send them back to Afghanistan, who will buy all these carpets? Business will go thapp [down],” he explains.

Project director | Fahad Naveed
Executive producer | Atika Rehman
Editing | Atika Rehman, Fahad Naveed, Jahanzeb Hussain
Design | Alyna Butt
Videography | Kamran Nafees